Which digital device is best for education?

There has never been a bigger choice for teachers and students when it comes to digital devices to support learning. When I started in education just over a decade ago you were a Mac school or a PC school. Being a Mac school was quite radical, and it was almost impossible to find a tech that knew anything about them (some may say nothing has changed!).

Now having Macs is no big deal. In fact, OSX, the Mac operating system, sits alongside Windows as the two ‘old school’ systems that have now been around much longer than any of your students have been alive. They have been joined by a myriad of other devices and operating systems that are clamouring for the education market.

5 years ago it was all about netbooks. 3 years ago iPads made netbooks look positively prehistoric almost overnight. Now Google has got into the game with Android tablets and Chromebooks and everybody is more confused than ever.

The main thing I want to say here is: the more the merrier. The more different devices there are the more choices people have. More choices means you are more likely to find a combination of devices that suits your teaching, and also that suits your students’ learning.

Don’t waste your time being loyal to Apple or Google or any particular brand or product. The only mistake you can make is believing that one device can be chosen that will be the everything you need. It’s absurd to decide you are ‘an iPad school’ or a ‘Chromebook school’. Why? Because you immediately deny your students access to amazing learning opportunities afforded by the devices you’ve locked out.

Not all devices are equal, and no one device does everything. Currently Microsoft’s strategy seems to be to sell educators the exact opposite message. They are making schools everywhere believe that their laptop/tablet hybrids running Windows 8 or 8.1 give you the best of everything. “Can’t decide between a tablet and a laptop? Look, our products are both in 1!” This marketing is misleading schools into running 1:1 programs with second rate machines based on a mistaken premise. I believe tablets and laptops have shown themselves to be 2 different things, and they work best when the designers of both their software and hardware have built them specifically for one role or the other. Trying to get one device that ‘does everything’ inevitably leads to purchasing a device that doesn’t do anything very well.

This isn’t to say you can’t run a specific 1:1 program. We have a 1:1 iPad program at my school for example. However, we also provide our students access to laptops and Chromebooks.

What follows is my brief summation of the most popular types of devices in education and why you should have them somewhere in your school.

Best_tabletsTablets (iPad, Galaxy, Nexus etc – iOS or Android)

Why are tablets so good? Because they’re a multi-media production studio in the hands of every child. Because they facilitate the production of wonderful, simple, highly creative apps that are incredibly simple to use. Because they are highly portable, have long battery lives, and can be brought to where the learning is happening rather than the other way around. Doing a science experiment on the oval? Why wouldn’t you have students take photos and video of it, annotate them with audio narration and text, put them into a document, presentation or short film, and present them when they get back to class. All on one device. You can’t do that with a laptop or Chromebook.  We used to spend half a year making short films with students when I first started teaching. Now they can be created in one session.

There has never been such a flexible device available to educators than the tablet. It has enabled technology to ‘get out of the way’ and learning to once again be the focus. Show your learning in the way you choose: comic, movie, photos, mindmap. Whatever suits your mood or your learning style.

Best of all, tablets don’t have screens that come up in front of students’ faces. They are a great social/collaborative device, and in a well run classroom they can seem to be almost ‘invisible’.

Nothing gets my goat more than the ‘tablets aren’t creative devices’ argument. What absolute crap. Tablets, in my opinion, are THE MOST creative devices we’ve ever had access to.

devices-selector-home_150Google Chromebooks

Chromebooks represent everything we should be moving towards in our schools. All you need is an internet connection and a decent browser and almost everything you could wish to achieve is there for you. Get rid of Microsoft Office. Get rid of that painful school ‘intranet’. Get rid of standard ‘images’ for your machines that only your tech can install and manage. In fact, get rid of pretty much everything else that pre-dates cloud computing; and get moving towards kids being able to achieve everything they need to achieve just by being hooked up to your WiFi.

Why have Chromebooks? Because the vast majority of what students need to do at school on a laptop is in an internet browser, especially when you’ve embraced the wonderful world of Google Apps for Education. So why are you still paying for everything else on a laptop?? The Chromebook gives you this internet browser, with a super fast flash drive and none of the other rubbish you never use that slows a computer down, for around $300. A Windows laptop is at least twice that much. A Macbook Air boasts a flash drive and is super sexy, but is more than three times that price. Can you still justify this expense large scale?

I would never work without a Macbook day to day, but don’t kid yourself: more than 9 times out of 10 your students don’t need any of the features that would separate a Mac from a Chromebook.

Laptops (Mac OS or Windows)


If you’re doing ‘proper’ graphic design or film making, teaching kids to code, or using specialised software of any sort, there’s no substitute for a laptop. No matter how you try and frame it, Chromebooks and tablets can’t and aren’t meant to completely replace the laptop computer. You need some, but possibly not a lot, particularly in a Primary school. I see laptops a bit like trucks and tablets and Chromebooks like cars or motorbikes. Once you have a tablet or a Chromebook, you’re going to prefer it as an everyday machine. As soon as you need to do some ‘heavy lifting’ however, you’re going to need a truck!

Desktop computers (Mac OS or Windows) and Netbooks (Windows)

Get rid of them!

  – What do you think? Have I been too blunt or unfair? Have you in fact found a device that ‘does everything’? Let me know in the comments.

Update to iPhone: the teacher’s best friend

the new iPod Touch

the new iPod Touch

Now we can say iPod Touch: the teacher’s best friend! In my last post I wrote about all the ways I use my iPhone in the class room. It has certainly become a tool I would struggle to teach without.

At the school I was teaching in at the time we even altered policy documents and put notices in the newsletter to the effect that teachers would be seen regularly using their phones in class and meetings and this was ok – it was for professional purposes – they’re not text messaging or checking Facebook (hopefully!!).

The great news is that teachers no longer have to use their personal phone for classroom use. With the release of the new iPod Touch the game, and its many possibilities, has changed yet again. The great news is that the new iPod Touch does everything my old iPhone 3GS does and more. The more bit is that it is able to make ‘Facetime’ calls to anyone else on a wifi network, which for schools means instant communication with any other teacher that has the device from anywhere in the school. If you add the application ‘Fliq note’ to your iPod Touch, it will mean you can also send text messages to any other teacher as well.

The new iPod Touches are amazing devices, which is why I will most probably purchase one for each of my staff next year. Someone jokingly said to me that if I bought them iPads they’d love me even more. I disagree. The new iPod Touches are more functional than the iPad, in that you are equipping each staff member with a communication device, a camera, a HD video recorder (forget Flip Cams, they’re as good as dead), a portable video editor (they run a mobile version of iMovie), they’re own personal calendar, phone book, organiser etc etc etc. To even have dreamt of such a device 10 years ago would have been far fetched.

Can’t wait to get these into the hands of my staff, load up the Apps, and get the PDs going!

P.S. check them out here: http://www.apple.com/au/ipodtouch/

UPDATE: It’s come to light that Apple hasn’t blessed the iPod touch with the iPhone 4’s fantastic camera. For those wondering, it does not have a flash as the iPhone does, and is certainly not a 5 megapixel lens. In fact, the camera is less than 1 megapixel (basically a HD video camera that takes still shots), which is not as bad as you might think as the lens technology is still good, but it is a major disappointment.

The short of it is the rear camera shoots great HD video, but performs fairly ordinarily as a still camera especially in dimly lit situations. The front facing camera is only VGA quality.

iPhone: the Teacher’s best friend

iPhoneI’ve been mentioning to a few people recently how much I value my iPhone as a teacher’s tool.  Most people these days seem to own one and would even say that they could no longer live without it in their personal lives. But few teachers seem to have thought about how it could be used in a professional capacity.

Here is how I use mine:


EvernoteThis is the main application that gets a workout on my iPhone. It is basically a note taking/filing system that is a gift for teachers. You can record audio, take photos, or make notes on the run, and then save them to a particular folder within the application. That’s not all, because within a few seconds Evernote on you iPhone has transferred those notes onto your PC, and onto another account it makes for you in ‘the cloud’. I make a folder for each different student in my class, as well as a personal folder. Another teacher at our school doesn’t make folders but prefers to ‘tag’ each file with the relevant student name and sort her files that way. Either way is great. Here’s what I do with Evernote:

1. Make short notes when I observe something about a particular student in class, either on my phone or directly onto my laptop.

2. Record students reading and save those recordings to their file.

3. Take photos of student’s writing, annotate it with my observations, and save it to their file.

4. Take all notes from parent teacher interviews on the program and save it to their file.

5. Take notes from each student’s early years Maths and English interviews and keep it in their file.

6. Keep a record of test results in each student’s file.

By report time, for every student, I have copies of  writing, all observational notes, and recordings of them reading from different dates throughout the semester in one easy to access file on my computer, on my iPhone, and in ‘the cloud’.

An additional feature of Evernote is that it makes all text that you take a photo of ‘searchable’. That is, if you take a photo of piece of student work, and they’ve written their name on the top, you can find that piece of work later by typing in their name in the search window.


Scanner ProI have purchased a scanner app called ‘Scanner Pro’ and the quality of it is quite remarkable. It’s cost was relatively steep ($8) but I’ve been impressed. The application scans an image using the iPhone’s camera, uses advanced ‘algorithms’ to sharpen the image and make it look incredibly sharp, and then converts the image to a PDF. It then automatically sends it to an account of your choice. For example, you can sync it up with your Evernote account, or your email account, or just to save into your iPhone’s hard drive.  How would you use a scanner?  I’ve found it useful for a few things:

1. Those really annoying times when someone emails a form to you that you have to sign and then send back. This use to mean you have to print the form, fill it out and sign it, and then use snail mail or a fax machine to get it back to the sender. Now I simply print it, sign it, iPhone scan it, and have it sent to my email account or directly back to the sender.

2. If I’m flipping through a book and I see a worksheet I like I can just scan it there and then and it is instantly saved to my computer as a PDF file for use later on.

3. I can scan student work and send it to be stored on their file in Evernote.

DISPLAYING STUDENT WORK: Once again, using the iPhone’s camera, or the scanner application, if I see something that a student has written that can be used to make a teaching point to the class, I can take a photo of it, have it sent to my computer (via Evernote, email, or the good old fashioned way of plugging in and opening iPhoto) and displayed up on the Interactive Whiteboard, all within 1 or 2 minutes. Anything can be captured and displayed this way. Taking video of students working or sorting out a problem can be a great thing to show to the class later on and have a discussion about. A teacher at my school secretly recorded students during their reading groups, and then showed it back to them on the Interactive Whiteboard at the end of the session. They had a fantastic discussion about how effectively the students were (or weren’t) working, and all took away something to improve on for next time.


Air MouseAirmouse is a cool little application that lets you control your computer remotely using your iPhone. Your iPhone screen becomes a mouse, or, with a little shake, a keyboard. This means you can control your Interactive Whiteboard from anywhere in the classroom. It runs off the WiFi network so distance from your computer isn’t an issue.


Pocket WeatherNever again will I go on an excursion or sporting afternoon without the awesome Pocket Weather application. It gives you details of the day’s weather straight from the Bureau of Meteorology, and even better, up to the minute radar images so that you know exactly where any rain is at that point in time and which way it is heading within a 200 km radius of where you are. Fantastic stuff!


Password KeeperThis is another application that is a life saver for me. I have about 30 different Web 2.0 accounts, most of which demand different passwords and usernames when I sign up. Password keeper keeps all your passwords and usernames in the one place on your iPhone. The one catch? You have to make one more password to keep all the information locked up!


iCalI encourage staff to bring their iPhone’s to staff meetings, just as I do, so that any important notes or calendar dates can be directly noted onto their phone, which in turn automatically updates on their PC the next time they plug it in. Writing things on paper is not only old fashioned, its an inefficient and relatively disorganised way to maintain all your important information. These days, rather than scribbling everything down quickly on paper and then trying to find where on earth you wrote it later on, you have the option of making notes digitally, tagging them or putting them in a logical spot in an  organised filing system, and even attaching alerts to them if you think you might forget something that needs to be done on a certain date. This is a much smarter way to operate in a profession where there are 100 different things going on at once, and you are saving a heap of paper at the same time!

So there you go. Those are the main ways I use my iPhone as a teacher. There are new applications being added every day, and with them, new opportunities for teachers to enhance and improve the way they do things in the classroom and the staffroom.